Owner of International Inn Wants Ability to Build Eight Story Tower

North Shore

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Owner of International Inn Wants Ability to Build Eight Story Tower:

Agreement to historically designate delayed by mdpl litigation

The owner of the International Inn on Normandy Drive has an agreement, in principle, with the City and preservationists to build an eight-story tower on the property in exchange for not contesting historic designation of the Inn, but the agreement is on hold due to the ongoing legal troubles of the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL).
Last year, the Historic Preservation Board (HPB) began the process to designate the Inn historic without the consent of the owner. Following negotiations with preservationists and the City, attorney Alex Tachmes told the HPB this week, “We’re ready to proceed to a formal agreement with the City” to “designate the property in exchange for certain development rights.”
Those rights include maintaining the use as a hotel, adding a restaurant and bar, and the ability to build a slender tower on the property to make use of the remaining FAR (density) allowed on the site.
“The holdup now is MDPL… they were meeting with us every step of the way,” he said. Included in those meetings were Nancy Liebman, in an individual capacity and not as an HPB Board member, and Daniel Ciraldo, the MDPL Executive Director who is now in limbo as two groups fight for control of the organization’s Board of Directors
“MDPL is basically frozen at this point,” Tachmes said. “They’re not moving ahead and they’re in litigation and we can’t move forward at this point without their consent.”
The International Inn illustrates not only how the legal issues with MDPL are holding up what the organization stands for – protection of historic properties – but also how intertwined the organization is with the City’s processes given their special standing within the City Code to contest HPB decisions. 
“MDPL is clearly the most significant historic preservation organization in the City,” Tachmes said. “It’s been in that position for decades. They even have express standing in your zoning code where they’re mentioned that they can appeal matters that come in front of the Board and the problem is, if they’re not bound by our settlement, they could take certain steps to subvert a settlement that we’ll arrive at with the City and it’s just a risk we can’t take.”
One concern is the property’s status as a non-conforming use. It has been a hotel since it was built in 1956 but when the zoning changed in the area to prohibit new hotels, the International Inn became non-conforming. If the owner were to make repairs or upgrades that cost more than 50% of the value of the property, it would lose its grandfathered status and would no longer be able to operate as a hotel. 
The owner wants a code amendment to make the hotel a legal conforming use and to add accessory uses customarily associated with hotel properties such as a restaurant and bar. Tachmes said, “The concept would be some renovated, enlivened kind of lovely bar and restaurant right on the water… activate that waterfront with some tables, chairs, and a really nice kind of waterfront restaurant which, frankly, nobody in North Beach currently has.”
While the owner is not seeking to add additional square footage to the property, the current inn does not fully utilize the allowable FAR. Tachmes said his client would like to utilize the 10,000 square feet of available FAR to build an addition. 
“One option would be to put the FAR in a manner that… might be a little more squat and would have to be placed, out of necessity, over the historic portions of the building” or by building “a slender eight-story tower on the north part” that would not touch the historic structure. Alan Shulman, an architect highly regarded by the preservation community, prepared several massing studies and came up with the slender tower “that would allow the square footage to be added while retaining as much of the historic aspects of [the Inn] as possible,” Tachmes said.
“It will be a restored property,” he emphasized with “a hotel, a restaurant and bar” and a tower designed by Shulman. “It should be a terrific project when it’s done.”
City Design and Preservation Manager Debbie Tackett said, “The existing property is significantly underbuilt currently.” Under the current zoning, she said, what could be built is “five stories, 50 feet, so if they were to max out their FAR they would have a wider, fatter building.” She said the proposal is to keep the same FAR “but they are looking at increasing height to have a smaller footprint, a softer impact on the [older] building.”
Under the guidelines for designating properties, a formal report on suitability for designation must be given within one year of the process kick-off. Tackett made that presentation and then recommended deferring action on the item for 120 days. In the meantime, the process protects the property from any demolition.
“There’s really no imminent threat to the property,” Tackett said. "It’s in good condition. It has received 40-year certification. There are no violations on the property. We want to make sure [the owner’s] as comfortable as possible before any sort of formal recommendation would be issued.”
“The further this gets to the finish line, obviously, the more and more concerned we get that this is going to get done without our consent,” Tachmes said. “And then we have to start objecting. We have to start lobbying committees. It’s going down a road that nobody wants to go down. That’s the only reason we’re kind of holding, the City’s holding off, because if it’s all going to come to an amicable settlement, ultimately, we’d rather do that than in another fashion.”
The Inn was originally built as the Carnival Hotel. It was designed by prominent local architect Melvin Grossman who also designed the Seville, the Deauville, and the Doral Beach Hotels on Collins Avenue. It is located immediately adjacent to the 79th Street Causeway “which was a very strategic location that was selected in order to capture the motorists’ attention as they traveled eastward from the City of Miami,” Tackett said. That desire to capture attention is “also reflected in the building’s design, that very exuberant corner feature and the sky signage,” she added. It is “highly representative of the Postwar modern style of architecture in Miami Beach.”
“The building is significantly intact,” Tackett said. “Very few modifications have been made over time. You can see the actual roof sign is still in place. And the building retains all of its architectural integrity.”
While recommending the Board continue the designation to a future meeting, she said, “Ultimately we do believe it satisfies the criteria [for designation].” Staff is in agreement with the owner that waiting until MDPL’s issues are resolved is, for now, the best way to proceed, she said.
“What our goal is, is to have the property owner consistent with the goals of the City in terms of her wishes and her feeling comfortable with this historic designation,” Tackett told the Board. “We are dealing with an individual site here. Historic districts, which is what this Board mostly sees, are somewhat different. When you’re dealing with one individual property owner, ultimately, if that property owner objects to the designation, it’s more challenging moving forward.”
The HPB does not designate historic sites. It can make a recommendation, but formal designation comes through an ordinance approved by City Commission. 
When concerns were raised about what would happen if the property were to be sold, Tachmes responded, “We’re content with the process. We are happy with where we are now… We’re ready to move forward. Having said that, our client is getting a lot of offers… she hasn’t accepted any of them and it is a family business for her… She’s not actively shopping it or anything like that, but I know she’s getting offers.”
Tachmes reassured the Board that the zoning in progress continues. “If she were to sell it tomorrow, the buyer could not demolish it. What you’re doing, to use a legal term, runs with the land. It’s not personal to this owner,” he said.
Tackett recommended the item be continued until the HPB’s January meeting. Meanwhile, discussion of the proposed changes to the land use regulations is another item on the agenda for the Commission’s Land Use and Development Committee this week.

Before closing the item, Tachmes wanted to put on the record that the vacant lot next to the International Inn property that is “in very poor condition” is owned by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). He encouraged the City to get involved to ask FDOT to maintain the lot. He said his client wanted to buy it but was rebuffed.  
Liebman echoed Tachmes' concerns. “There are problems because of the lot. It’s a mess. People park cars there. There is absolutely no control over what’s going on there. If the City wants to do something good for this hotel,” they can ask FDOT to “clean it up and perhaps look at selling it so the City has more control over it,” she said.
“We’re willing to cooperate on some beautification of it as well,” Tachmes said. “Having that next to [the Inn] is really going to detract from it… We’ve tried. It’s the first thing you see on your left when you come across the 79th Street Causeway.”

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